11 Things to Know About One of Your Most Important Purchases

There seems to be a consumer rebellion brewing against mattress stores. If you have ever gone mattress shopping, the dizzying variety of brands, lines and features might make you long for the simplicity of used car shopping. Combine that with markups of up to 200% and it is no wonder discount online mattress shopping has grown tremendously in the past few years. One online retailer, Tuft&Needle, even bases its sales pitch on the crookedness of mattress stores. Its pitch? "Mattress Stores Are Greedy."


Americans can shell out thousands of dollars for a mattress, although it is a matter of considerable debate whether that cost is necessary. What we do know, though, is that it behooves us to choose one wisely. We Americans love to sleep. One study found that six in 10 American would rather sleep than have sex, a statistic that reveals some serious devotion to shut-eye. And maybe this devotion is not without merit. Lack of sleep can make us accident prone, less healthy, affect our decision-making processes, and take a serious bite out of our coffee budget. The negative effects of sleep deprivation costs Americans on average about 11 days of work a year, and overall about $63 billion in lost productivity. In one small-scale 2009 study, 59 men and women were asked to sleep for 28 straight days in their usual old mattresses, and the next 28 days in a brand-new medium firm mattress. After the new-mattress experience, the participants reported an overall decrease in such stress factors as worry, nervousness, irritability, and even headaches.

For the serious student of good sleep, there are many accessories to aid a good rest. White noise machines, sleeping medications, blackout shades, high-quality sheets, among others. But no sleep accessory approaches the importance of the ideal mattress. Human beings first began creating a private sleeping space about 10,000 years ago, sleeping on a nest of animal skins, twigs and leaves. The Egyptians hit upon the idea of sleeping elevated from the earth, raising a pallet off the ground. The bed took off from there, evolving from a coarse ticking filled with such items as pea shucks, straw, feathers, and reeds, through the advent of spring mattresses, futons, foam rubber, waterbeds, and airbeds.

Poor-quality mattresses have been the cause of insomnia, stress, discomfort and chronic pain. Conversely, a high-quality mattress can ease or even eliminate those same symptoms. A network of tiny blood vessels called capillaries covers your body. When you are lying down for a night’s sleep, blood flow is cut off in the places where your body touches the mattress. This, in turn, causes your nerve cells to send a signal to your brain, which tells you to roll over, restoring blood to the areas that were cut off. But the rolling over briefly interrupts your sleep. A comfortable mattress will reduce the pressure points, reducing the number of times you roll over, and producing a more satisfying sleep session.

As in most things, the educated consumer has a headstart on the rest of us. With the plethora of choices, the selection can be daunting. Foam rubber? Coil? Spring or airbed? Different studies have come to different conclusions. The truth is that mattress comfort is entirely subjective. If it works for you, it’s the right mattress.

Here are 11 things you should know about choosing a mattress; arguably, the most important item you may own. After all, you spend a third of your life on it.

1. Online is cheaper, but there are caveats. If cost is a concern, consider shopping online, where you can typically save 15%, and as much as 50%. An independent study indicates that customer satisfaction is about the same regardless of where you shop. There are obvious shortcomings to online mattress shopping, though. You should never buy a mattress without testing it out first (see #7 below), but how do you do that online? Most online retailers will give you a free trial, but you might find it a hassle to return something as large as a mattress. Mattress makers also make it a challenge to comparison shop by selling virtually the same mattress under different names.

Ultimately, the question of where to purchase your mattress is a personal one. If you don't mind doing your homework, comparing costs, and you're willing to take the extra time, online is definitely worthwhile. New and growing online retailers of quality mattresses, like Tuft&Needle or Casper, will definitely be easier on your bank account. But if that seems too daunting, and you can absorb the potentially higher cost, go brick-and-mortar. An added tip: if you like a store mattress, don't want to buy online, but don’t like the higher store cost, don’t hesitate to comparison shop online and negotiate with your brick-and-mortar store. Ask them to match the online price of the same (or similar) mattress. Mattress salespersons, much like car salespersons, are usually able to negotiate. 

2. Ignore the marketing. About the only thing that marketing adds to your mattress is cost. The dirty secret in the mattress business is that mattresses all pretty much use the same technology, and are made from the same things purchased from the same places. Sealy, Serta and Simmons, the Big Three of mattress purveyors, all purchase their innerspring coils from the same manufacturer. If you can’t tell much difference between a cheap mattress and an expensive one, that’s because there isn’t much. It’s not about the brand. It’s all about the comfort.

3. Replace your mattress every eight years, give or take. Beyond eight years, most mattresses will begin to degrade. It might be subtle, but eventually your comfort level will degrade with it. If you are not sleeping well, waking up in discomfort and feeling cranky, you should consider shopping for a new mattress. At any rate, make sure you flip your mattress every three months or so to minimize the wear and tear.

4. The box spring is optional. Box springs do add a little height, if you like that, and a tad more “give” to the mattress. Otherwise, if your mattress is comfortable, a box spring is totally not necessary, and only adds to the cost of bed shopping. It’s not unusual to go box spring-less. Platform beds are very popular in Europe. But if you prefer the box spring, you should replace it with your mattress every eight years. Like the mattress (and maybe you, come to think of it), its parts sag with age.

5. Comfort should be your primary focus. The common belief is that a firm mattress is better for your back, and if you find that to be true, go for it. But the fact is that there is no consensus in the medical community on the firm vs. soft debate. The back is complicated and what works for one person may not work for another. If you sleep better on a soft mattress, you should buy a soft mattress. Same for firm. It’s all about a good night’s sleep, right?

6. That said, pay attention to your spinal alignment. Bring your partner or a friend with you to the mattress store and ask them to observe how your spine aligns when you are in your normal sleeping position. Your spine should remain more or less neutral. If your spinal column curves or sags in an exaggerated manner, it probably means the mattress will cause you back problems. Move on.

7. Take it for a test drive. If the mattress passes its other comfort tests, then give it a test “sleep” for about 20 minutes in the store. Don’t be shy. It’s totally acceptable. You wouldn’t buy a car without a test drive, would you? This tip goes even if you are planning on buying your mattress online. Find a store and try out your options before buying anything.

8. Ignore the optics. A thicker mattress does not necessarily mean a more comfortable mattress. Exotic upholstery on a mattress just gets covered up with a sheet. See #2 above.

9. But pay attention to the allergens. Mattresses are comfy resting places for more than your body. They are home to dust mites, molds and other bacteria. If you are an allergy sufferer, make sure your mattress isn’t made of materials that are going to exacerbate your allergies. Even better, look for a mattress that is hypoallergenic. At the very least, you should vacuum your mattress to reduce allergens, or invest in a mattress cover you can wash regularly.

10. You say tomato, I say to-mah-to. If you share your bed with a partner, and your partner differs from your opinion of what a comfortable mattress entails, look for a mattress that adjusts on both sides. It costs more money, for sure, but consider it a test of what your relationship is worth.

11. Give it a few days. Once you have your new mattress home, don’t distress if you don’t sleep well on it the first night. It sometimes takes a few days to adjust to a new sleeping surface. But in case it persists, look for a mattress with a return policy. Most online retailers will grant a 90-day free trial period, so hang on to the packaging until you are sure you love your new mattress, just in case you want to send it back. If a brick-and-mortar store does not have a return policy that suits you, find another one.

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